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Can Animals Be Therapists?

Animal Therapy

It is said that man’s best friend is a dog. Can a dog also be man’s best therapist?

Anyone who loves animals knows how nice it is to come home to a dog who’s glad to see you, particularly after a bad day: to stroke a cat’s fur and listen to the kitty purr; to cuddle a nice, soft bunny; to saddle up a horse and go for a ride, or even to watch fish swimming placidly in their aquarium. All of these actions contribute to a sense of calm and well-being.

While a beloved pet will never take the place of a trained therapist, spending time with an animal provides both physical and mental health benefits that can aid in recovery.

Benefits of Having a Pet or Spending Time With Animals

According to an article that was published on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website, owning a pet can decrease stress, improve a person’s overall cardiovascular health, and can decrease the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) circulating in a person’s system and increase the levels of oxytocin. Decreasing the levels of cortisol can lower blood pressure, prevent weight gain, boost energy levels, improve brain function, and strengthen the immune system. Increased levels of oxytocin contribute to the ability to form connections. A study conducted by the Federation Cynologique Internationale suggests that children who have pets in their homes develop stronger immune systems than do children in homes without pets.

An article in Psychology Today says that spending time with animals can be beneficial to people diagnosed with major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and substance use disorder. Spending time with animals can contribute to feelings of calmness, comfort, and safety, and forming a bond with an animal can help people develop better self-esteem, improve their ability to trust and form connections, and improve socialization and communication skills. A study of adolescents with type 1 diabetes demonstrated that taking care of fish correlated to the teens better managing their diabetes.

Having a pet also lowers your cholesterol level, decreases triglycerides (fats carried in the blood), decreases feelings of loneliness, increases your opportunities to get exercise and spend time outdoors, and makes it easier to form connections with other people. If you have a tendency to isolate because of depression or feelings of shame surrounding addiction, having a dog can be a great way to get out of your head, get out of the house, and meet some other people.

If pet ownership isn’t a possibility, perhaps because you rent in a place that doesn’t allow animals, you are in college and live in a dorm, or you or someone in your household is allergic to animals, you can still have some of the benefits of being around animals. Go to a pet store and spend some time watching the animals there. If your area has an aquarium, zoo, or living museum, pay them a visit. Volunteer at an animal shelter or an animal rescue society. Find work as a dog walker or take care of people’s pets when they travel. 

Animals in Medical and Other Settings

Because of the mental and health benefits that spending time with animals brings to people, animals are used in more formal settings as well. This idea is not new. An article on animal-assisted therapy (AAT) published on the Alliance of Therapy Dogs website says that the ancient Greeks used companion animals to help people with physical and mental illnesses. Hippocrates, the Greek doctor considered to be the founder of medicine, thought that there was great therapeutic value in horseback riding. In the 1960s, child psychologist Boris Levinson is considered to be the father of AAT. Levinson began bringing his dog, Jingles, to work with him and found that when he did so that the children’s therapy sessions were more productive. Children were more at ease and communicative when Jingles was in the session. 

Now therapy dogs (typically well-trained pets) make the rounds at some selected hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities, addiction treatment centers, and prisons. According to an article published by the Mayo Clinic, the use of therapy dogs can “significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in people with a range of health problems.” These health problems include children undergoing dental procedures, cancer patients receiving treatment, patients with dementia, and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Prisons use therapy dogs to “reduce violence and anti-social behaviors, cases of suicide, and drug addiction.”

Some airports now use therapy dogs as well, which was implemented after 9/11. According to Vane Airport Media, Inc., as of 2018, 58 airports in the United States had some sort of therapy dog program. For example, the Wag Brigade has been a tail-wagging presence at the San Francisco International Airport since 2013. The Wag Brigade now has 22 therapy dogs and one Juliana -breed pig, who enjoys playing her toy piano. The therapy animals all wear vests that say “Pet Me.” The Wag Brigade is a partnership between the airport and the San Francisco SPCA.

Animal-Assisted Therapy in Addiction Recovery

Because of the mental and physical health benefits associated with being around animals, many treatment facilities incorporate some type of animal-assisted therapy into their programs. Activities will vary depending on the facility and the client, but can include grooming and feeding the horses, taking care of the tack, and cleaning out stables. Many programs also incorporate riding. Equine therapy lends itself well to recovery programs because working around horses can help people to identify and process their feelings. 

The ancient Greeks were right: animals are good for people. Don’t fire your therapist, but do find a friendly animal to be part of your life.

Spending time with animals is good for your physical and mental health. Because of this, Enlightened Solutions includes equine therapy as part of the holistic treatment modalities that they offer to patients working to overcome addiction or mental health issues. Equine therapy has demonstrated success in helping people to identify their feelings, which is part of the healing process. Located on the New Jersey shore, Enlightened Solutions offers alternative therapies to complement the one-on-one and group counseling that they provide. Other alternative therapies that they offer include art and music therapy, Family Constellation Therapy, horticultural therapy, yoga, acupuncture, and chiropractic work. Every patient has a treatment program custom-tailored for him or her based on their individual needs. If you or a loved one are seeking treatment for a substance abuse disorder or a mental health issue, consider Enlightened Solutions. The facility offers treatment in a compassionate and supportive environment. For more information call (833) 801-5483.